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Originally published January 21, 2010 at 6:13 PM | Page modified January 22, 2010 at 6:45 PM

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Times photographer reflects on assignment to Haiti

A Seattle Times' staff photographer reflects on her trip to Haiti.

Seattle Times staff photographer

On Friday, Jan. 15, Seattle Times staff photographer Erika Schultz, 26, received word that she had the opportunity to go along on a humanitarian mission to Haiti. By early Sunday morning, Schultz was at McChord Air Force Base, preparing to board a C-17 bound for Haiti's Toussaint Louverture International Airport. Here are her reflections on a memorable assignment.

We departed McChord Air Force Base at 2 a.m. Sunday, strapped inside the belly of a roaring C-17. Veteran Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton sat nearby, as well as the familiar faces of a handful of Northwest journalists. We were all following an Air Force humanitarian mission, designed to assist Haitians affected by last week's 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Feeling the shake of takeoff, I was a little nervous, unsure of what was to come.

We knew the aircraft would pick up supplies from Virginia's Langley Air Force Base and deliver them to Haiti. But it wasn't until later the Air Force confirmed our mission also was to evacuate a group of Haitians with ties to America, either through citizenship or residency.

While flying from Washington state to Virginia, we reached for our blankets and sleeping bags inside the cold cargo bay, hoping to catch a few hours' sleep. When we arrived at Langley, the first of our four stops, crews loaded more than 100,000 pounds of equipment and a team of Army soldiers into the aircraft. A few hours later, at sunset, the C-17 landed on the Port-au-Prince tarmac. The crew started to unload the cargo. We peeled off our layers, inhaled the hot, humid air and went outside.

Directly in front of us, dozens of men swiftly unloaded supplies from Digicel, a major mobile-phone company in Haiti that was damaged in the quake. In the other direction, I was stunned to see a line of hundreds of people that snaked around the Toussaint Louverture International Airport.

Under a red-and-white-striped tent, we met a mother in a wheelchair clutching her baby. The woman had been buried for three hours in rubble, and lost four family members in the earthquake, including a son and her own mother. Around her, families comforted their children. A young woman gently poured liquid into her sick father's mouth. The bluish mountains in the distance turned to black as night fell.

We spent less than just a couple of hours at the airport before evacuees were lined up to board the plane. Crew members carried and wheeled up the sick and elderly. I met a son and his injured mother, Leanne Civil, when they were trying to find her seat belt. Leanne's head was wrapped in white gauze, and both of her feet were injured. Her son accidentally bumped her leg. She groaned. He apologized profusely, wiping his mother's face with his T-shirt. I'm not sure if he was wiping away dirt, sweat or tears.

More than 180 evacuees filled the plane. The seats were saved for those who needed them most. The rest of the evacuees sat in rows on the floor of the cargo area, banded together with a thick white safety strap. To move from the back to the front of the aircraft, I carefully tiptoed thought a sea of people. I found an open spot near the front of the cargo bay, where I had enough room to sit cross-legged.

Behind me, Lucnie Gustave held her two children, daughter Luznie and son Chris Ryan. Gustave, who is studying medicine, said she was in a classroom when the earthquake hit. Her home was damaged, but she had access to food — a banana tree in her back yard.

"I lost many things," she said. "I don't have money now."

Her children are American citizens. Gustave wasn't sure when she will return to Haiti. Maybe in seven months, she said, to repair her home. She asked if I was on Facebook. Since returning from the trip, I've sent her a friend request and we've been trading messages online.

This experience floored me. Going into this mission, I was not sure how much we would see or how long we would be at the airport. It was the first time I had met people who may have been suffering with thirst and hunger. Crew members told us not to chew gum or take out any food and water during the flight because we did not have enough to go around. A couple of evacuees asked if there was water available. It was difficult to respond when I knew there were two or three unopened bottles in my backpack.

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Covering this story also reminded me that now, more than ever, we're a global community, that America and other countries have a vested interest in what's happening in Haiti.

This is a catastrophe of massive scale. As of now, the death toll is estimated at 200,000 -- more than 100 times that of Hurricane Katrina, and approaching the loss of life caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

I think it's important to keep following Haiti's story, to help and give where we can, and not turn our gaze as time goes on.

I'm writing this back in Seattle, late at night, in my bed. And, I'm thinking about all the people in Haiti who weren't lucky enough to get on that C-17.

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